I love hearing life-changing stories. I wrote this article about people’s defining moments in business for Twin CIties Business magazine eight years ago. It’s fun to learn the behind-the-scenes details of how a company or person took a giant leap toward success. Not all of the companies represented are still in business but that doesn’t change the fact that these are very cool stories!
It’s a day like any other. You’re minding your own business when suddenly, unexpectedly, there it is: a fork in the road. It may be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that’s dropped in your lap, a dramatic moment of expanded insight and clarity, or a challenge that yanks the rug right out from under your life. You may only have a moment or two to act or you may have a few months to sort things out. You may curse the gods or sink to your knees in gratitude. The circumstances vary but two things are certain. One, your life is about to change. And two, it’s a day you will not soon forget.
Klemz co-founded Central Coast Solutions, a full-service business technology consulting company whose core markets reply on Apple Macintosh computers.
I had been working as an electrical engineer for five years for Tecnetics, an industrial control company in New Brighton. For a couple years, I had been helping family members and friends with their computer issues and, through word of mouth, that slowly evolved into a small side business. When that started to pay well, I decided that Tecnetics wasn’t paying me enough to
keep my attention during the day. But making the jump to go off on my own was a big step.
My brother Doug said something that made all the difference. When I asked him if I should start my own company, he asked, ‘Do you have skills that the job market needs right now?’ I said yes, and he said, ‘If you try it for a year and it doesn’t work out, you won’t be out anything. You can just go back to work.’ That gave me the bravery I needed. Either I would get a significant raise or I would leave and start my own company.
It was a Friday afternoon in May 1991. I went into my boss’s office, sat down in front of his huge oak desk and asked for a raise from $18 an hour to $24 an hour. He said it wasn’t possible because they didn’t have the money in the budget. But he said he could give me 50 cents an hour now and a review in six months to see if they could give me another 50 cents at that time.
I looked over at my supervisor who was also there and then I looked back at the boss. I reached into my breast pocket where I had one of my newly printed business cards. I kind of flipped it with a classic whisk of my fingers. It did a perfect spiral in mid-air and came down right in front of him, right side up, on his desk. It read, ‘Ed Klemz. President, Logical Solutions, Inc.’ And I said, ‘Now if you want me to work for you it’s going to cost you $85 an hour.’
I went to my office and started packing my belongings. The boss came in and asked if I could stay on to continue the project I was working on. I said sure, so I stayed on at the higher rate for a few more weeks. That cost them a heckuva lot more than paying me the $6 an hour I had wanted.
Cohen co-founded CNS, Inc., a consumer packaged goods company that specialized in over-the-counter health care products.
Bruce Johnson, the inventor of the Breathe Right® strip, came to us with his product in the fall of 1991 and we completed a license agreement in January 1992. It took us 19 months to get FDA approval and distribution didn’t really accelerate until the summer of 1994.
In October 1994 we sent out samples of the Breathe Right® strip to all of the head trainers in the NFL with instructions on how to use it. The first player to use the strip in a game was Herschel Walker, who was playing with the Philadelphia Eagles. Jerry Rice happened to see a reprint of an article about it from the Philadelphia Inquirer and decided he wanted to try it because he had nasal breathing problems. His trainer had some on hand so a week later, in early November, Jerry wore it during a Monday Night Football game.
That Monday night game was a major breakthrough for us that set off a plethora of media attention. In January, there were 15 players in the Super Bowl wearing the product. It just became a huge media fest and stimulated a ton of articles. When you think about it, what are people going to write? ‘Football player wears bandage on nose?’ That doesn’t make any sense. The writers needed to describe what it was and how their readers could use it, so they all wrote how the Breathe Right® strip could be used for nasal congestion relief, snoring relief and so on and so forth. The strip became very, very popular and virtually overnight we had a sizable business. We literally went from $2 million in sales in 1994 to $46 million in 1995.
Cullinan is a senior sales executive for Bolger Vision Beyond Print, which offers design, printing, fulfillment and mailing services.
When I started working in the printing industry in Duluth in 1985, my goal was to learn the basics in print production and then move into sales. I moved my family to the Twin Cities in 1993 and took a job working second shift at a packaging company in the pre-press department. After three years I decided to move to third shift so I could spend more time with my kids. I was getting frustrated with my third-shift position and finally had a heart-to-heart with my manager. He said, ‘Ray, you’re one of my best operators but I just don’t have a position on days for you.’ I decided then that I would try my luck in sales so I started faxing my resume around.
I finally got an offer for a sales position from Dorholt Printing in Hopkins. Even though they were a little shaky financially, I left my cushy union job with four weeks vacation and top pay and went to Dorholt for half the money. My first day there, they handed me a list of disgruntled customers and told me to cold call them and try to win them back. A month after I started my new sales career, Dorholt started having severe financial problems. Eventually, the owners announced that they had to either sell the company or declare bankruptcy.
One day, a guy came to the office to make an offer on the company and asked if he could hang his coat in my area. One of my co-workers told me it was Charley Bolger, one of the owners of Bolger Concept To Print. I looked on my desk and there were 500 new business cards I wasn’t going to need, so I filled every single pocket of his jacket with my cards.
A few days later, the sales manager of Bolger called and invited me to lunch. He said that Charley told him he had kept pulling my cards out of his pockets and thinking, ‘Who is this Ray Cullinan?’ When the sales manager made me an offer I wanted to accept it right then and there but I didn’t want to make it look like I was too desperate so I asked if I could think about it overnight. As soon as I walked back in the office after lunch, the owner of Dorholt told me, ‘Ray, you’ve gotta start looking for a job because we can’t keep you anymore.’
It wasn’t an easy transition but I’ve just finished my third successful year at Bolger. Plus, I’m sleeping normal hours and I’m actually awake now when I’m with my family and friends!
Green was “head puff” of P. Puff Industries, which designed and marketed Wordstretch™ rubber band bracelets and related products. P. Puff was the officially licensed rubber band maker for the NBA.
In December 1998, I designed my first seven rubber band bracelets and test marketed them in two local stores. They had whimsical sayings on them like ‘Cutie Pie’ and ‘What Would Scooby Do?’ The first rep I sent them to accepted them so they appeared at the New York Gift Show in January 1999.
The show was extremely successful for me. I was working out of a tiny room on the third floor of my house where I could answer the phone, fax and work on my computer all at the same time. I had never sold a product before so in between packing orders and answering the phone I was also trying to figure out how to market my bracelets. I had no catalog, just a one-page sell sheet and I was shipping out the rubber bands in a plastic jar.
One day I went up to my little 8’ x 10’ room and found a fax from the creative director of Giorgio Armani Milan asking me to FedEx some samples to her immediately. At first, I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, this must be a joke!’ I had no idea how she knew about me or got my fax number. It was baffling. I didn’t find out until later that she had heard about the bracelets from a Paris businesswoman who had attended the New York show.
I sent the samples off and got a call from Milan two days later. The nicest woman in the world said and, I quote, ‘I brought them into a meeting yesterday with Giorgio Armani himself and he loved them – he said they were very fresh.’ She told me he put the ‘Cutie Pie’ bracelet on and wore it all day. She ended up placing a 60,000-piece order, which was 20 or 30 times the quantity of all my previous orders combined.
Killian was the CEO of FanBuzz, Inc., which ran official online stores for professional sports teams and leagues, schools and media properties.
My high school friend, Tim Brule, and I started this company in late 1996 with $2500 and a computer. He stayed in Minnesota and I moved to rural Pennsylvania to open a fulfillment center in a former dentist’s office. It was pretty pathetic but it was all we had.
We had initiated a series of conference calls in the spring of 1998 with ESPN, which has the largest sports web site on the Internet. I remember thinking that the odds of us ever striking a deal with them were slim to none. They were owned by the Walt Disney Company, a massive, multibillion dollar corporation and here we were in a 750 sq. ft. dentist’s office in rural western Pennsylvania with virtually no inventory. But I figured since they didn’t really know how small we were, maybe the odds of that standing in our way weren’t so great.
After we had FedExed them a proposal, my contact at ESPN called me to discuss it. He said he’d like to get together as soon as possible to discuss the potential of a relationship. I remember thinking, ‘Wow, that’s exciting but how am I going to pay for the plane ticket?’ That’s how bad things were for us.
Then he said he’d like to come out and tour our facility and meet face to face to discuss the terms of the agreement. I swallowed hard and said, ‘Gee, when would you like to do that?’ He said, “I was thinking about tomorrow.’ I said, ‘Sure, I’ll be happy to arrange that.’
When I hung up the phone and came out of the office, I was pretty dejected. Our lone employee said, ‘I take it we didn’t get the contract.’ I said, ‘That’s it, we’ve blown it.’ He said, ‘Why, did they turn us down?’ I said ‘No, they’re going to be here tomorrow! It’s over, this is never going to happen!”
The next day, a guy from Disney flew in from Los Angeles and the ESPN guy flew in from Bristol, Connecticut for a tour although I don’t know if you can really tour a 750-foot facility; you can take about ten steps and get from one end to the other. It was a very humbling experience. Fortunately, they were really down-to-earth folks who placed more value on what we were able to bring to the table rather then how big we weren’t.
We had no conference room so we went to a restaurant and cut a multimillion deal over big bowls of pasta. Up until that point, we had maybe $150,000 in revenues. That deal took us from ‘obscure company that nobody’s ever heard of’ to the leader in the online sale of team and league licensed merchandise.
Without question, that deal was a major turning point for us. Instead of working with smaller clients and gradually building our way up, we went after the biggest name in sports right out of the gate and somehow miraculously managed to convince them we were somebody worth betting on. We built our company on the back of that relationship.
Rolando founded Table for Two, a matchmaking service with offices in multiple cities.
I was getting ready to launch Table for Two in January 1997. I had invested $10,000 in the design and development of my marketing materials. On the very day they were delivered from the printer, I received a certified letter from a very large Minneapolis law firm that said their client was planning to sue me for trademark infringement.
The client, the March of Dimes, wanted $50,000 from me to be able to use the name Table for Two because that was the name of their annual fundraising event in which they raised money by raffling off eligible bachelors. Even though, legally speaking, they had a leg to stand on, I think the leg was pretty weak.
I immediately started making phone calls. I found a fabulous IP (Intellectual Property) attorney named Felicia Boyd at Faegre & Benson and for ten months the attorneys sent letters back and forth. It all culminated with a meeting in September 1997 that included me, my attorney, four attorneys representing the March of Dimes and four big shots from the March of Dimes. it was eight against two.
They probably thought their threatening letters would do the trick but I wasn’t about to back down. I think they saw how serious I was about defending myself because they ended up changing the name of their event and we never heard from them again.
After that day, I knew that I could handle anything. It really set the precedence for me to be able to say, ‘I’ve got the staying power so bring it on!’
ABOUT PHIL BOLSTA
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